Shelach Lecha

“A land which devours its inhabitants” Numbers 13:32


It’s hard not to empathise with the spies. They travelled through the land and reported back their fears. Wherein lies their error? An intriguing literary clue is given in their words, “It is a land which devours its inhabitants”. At first glance this appears to be a poetic elaboration on their reasons for despair. Yet sensitivity to the Torah’s language reveals a deeper issue.

Throughout the Torah the land of Israel does not devour its inhabitants. It spits them out — “and you shall observe my commandments… so that that the land will not spit you out” (Leviticus 20:22, also Leviticus 18:28). 

The land of Israel itself cannot abide residents whose behaviour does not accord with its requirements. As the body vomits out food it cannot absorb, so the land vomits out those whose actions it cannot abide. Rather, it is other lands which are described as devouring their inhabitants. “And you shall be lost amongst the nations, the land of your enemies shall devour you” (Leviticus 26:38). There, the Torah says, you will be absorbed, you will be persecuted or assimilate, you will disappear.

It is only the spies who describe Israel as devouring her inhabitants. Their slip of the tongue indicates that they evaluate the land of Israel in the same terms as any other land. 

As they devour, so she devours. And as they could not conquer many other lands, so too they will not be able to succeed in Israel. Here is their fault: they forget that Israel is different, they forget that God is with them and by His will alone will they succeed or fail.

The spies cannot be faulted for reporting back what they saw. Their error lies in not believing that despite the challenges, their mission had divine support.

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